The Kremlin's tight grip on the media in recent years has been readily evident during the conflict in Georgia, right down to the way the TV news has presented the Georgian leader's speeches.
His voice is dubbed in a shrill Russian intended to suggest a tin-pot despot who has maniacally plunged the region into crisis.
Yet for all the government's success at managing the news in Russia, it has seemed ill-prepared to press its case internationally. It failed to grasp that the same figure it was mocking on its channels – President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia – was using his fluency in English to dominate coverage in the rest of the world.
And the Russians were nowhere, at least early on.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It is not just Russia's overall image that is at stake. Russia and Georgia have sought to convince the world that the other side is responsible for starting the conflict, committing atrocities and failing to abide by the cease-fire.
While international observers will weigh in on many of these issues, the crisis is also being adjudicated in the court of public opinion, especially in Europe, which has become an arbiter between Washington and Moscow.
It was not until four days after the conflict began that a top Kremlin official was sent to CNN to counter Saakashvili. The official, Sergei Ivanov, a confidant of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who speaks polished English and has long experience in the West, quickly acknowledged that an unfortunate perception had taken hold.
“A big Russian bear attacked a small, peaceful Georgia,” said Ivanov, a deputy prime minister, before seeking to undo the damage. “In fact, the situation is and was vice versa. It was a big Georgia which attacked a small and tiny breakaway republic of South Ossetia.”
The Kremlin's reluctance to muster support for its position with the same intensity that it sent tanks into Georgia offers an insight into its world view. Under Putin, it has harbored a deep ambivalence toward the West, reflected in its discomfort in having to justify its actions and a suspicion that no matter what it says, the deck is stacked against it.
Even as the Kremlin has pursued a more vigorous international media strategy, it has also turned to a classic tactic, citing what it contends is the West's bias to stir up nationalism in Russia. To do this, it has hit upon an unlikely symbol: a 12-year-old girl from California.
The girl was interviewed with her aunt on the Fox News Channel last week about being with her relatives in South Ossetia when the battle erupted, and senior Russian officials say the segment was ended after the two guests criticized the Georgians.
A clip of the interview has been shown repeatedly on Russian news channels and has been widely circulated on Russian Web sites.
Fox News said it had nothing to apologize for, and to anyone familiar with cable news the interview was unremarkable, lasting nearly four minutes, a typical length. The Fox News anchorman, Shepard Smith, was respectful to the girl, Amanda Kokoeva, praising her as a hero, and apologized to her aunt, Laura Tedeeva-Korewicki, when time started running out. And both guests did assail the Georgian government.
Still, the Kremlin seized upon the interview as evidence that the U.S. was censoring criticism of Saakashvili. A Russian anchor said the guests' treatment indicated that the U.S. would use “any means available” for a disinformation campaign against Russia.
The anchor then introduced a version of the interview that had been edited to make Fox News seem overtly hostile. The man who dubs Smith's voice in Russian not only exaggerates the anchor's tone, but even coughs and groans loudly when Tedeeva-Korewicki blames Saakashvili for causing the conflict – something that did not happen in the original.